Illness and Cancer

Any life-threatening illness can cause trauma and high levels of distress. I believe that the diagnosis, treatment and after care of a life-threatening illness can be very traumatic for people experiencing cancer, neurological conditions, heart disease, diabetes and HIV Aids.

You can have feelings of shock, fear, helplessness, or horror. These feelings may lead to post-traumatic stress (PTS), which is a lot like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a specific group of symptoms that affect many survivors of stressful events. PTS can occur anytime during or after treatment. Some people experience PTS after they are told the diagnosis. Parents of children with a life-threatening illness can also experience PTS.

When you or a family member are told you have cancer or a life-threatening illness you can have frightening thoughts, trouble concentrating or get overstimulated, have trouble sleeping and feeling detached from yourself or reality. These experiences can also occur with a re-occurrence of the illness.

There are many things that contribute to a trauma response including, previous trauma, level of existing stress, support systems and physical health otherwise.


Symptoms of cancer related PTS can be triggered when certain, sounds, sights and smells are experienced.

One of my clients, with a recurrence of aggressive breast cancer was easily and understandably triggered by the parking bay (a few steps before chemo and not wanting to get out of the car with a feeling of dread) attached to the Cancer Care Centre and by people invading her personal space. She also was triggered by any feelings of nausea after treatment was completed as well as needles.

Research is very clear about the importance of positive social support, clear information about the stage of the cancer or progression of an illness and an open relationship with healthcare providers.

Post-traumatic stress symptoms develop by conditioning. Conditioning occurs when certain triggers become linked with an upsetting event. For example, visiting a dentist after a traumatic experience as a child, hearing drills and smelling the dentist environment can be a trigger.

Neutral triggers (such as smells, sounds, and sights) that occurred at the same time as upsetting triggers (such as chemotherapy or painful treatments) can later cause anxiety, stress, and fear even when they occur alone, after the trauma has ended.

Triggers during the cancer experience may include:

  • Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
  • Receiving treatment
  • Waiting for test results
  • Learning the cancer has recurred

PTS has many of the same symptoms as depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, and panic disorder. Some of the symptoms that can be seen in post-traumatic stress and in other conditions:

  • Feeling defensive, irritable, or fearful
  • Being unable to think clearly
  • Sleeping problems
  • Avoiding other people
  • Loss of interest in life

Serious life-threatening illness

Here are some of the common emotional responses to serious illness:

  • Facing up to your own mortality and the prospect that the illness could potentially be life-ending
  • Denial that anything is wrong or refusing to accept the diagnosis
  • A sense of isolation, feeling cut off from friends and loved ones who can’t understand what you’re going through
  • Worrying about the future—how you’ll cope, how you’ll pay for treatment, what will happen to your loved ones, the pain you may face as the illness progresses, or how your life may change
  • Grieving the loss of your health and old life
  • Anger or frustration as you struggle to come to terms with your diagnosis—repeatedly asking, “Why me?” or trying to understand if you’ve done something to deserve this
  • Feeling powerless, hopeless, or unable to look beyond the worst-case scenario
  • Regret or guilt about things you’ve done that you think may have contributed to your illness or injury. Shame at how your condition is affecting those around you
  • A loss of self. You’re no longer you but rather your medical condition

Whatever your situation, you should know that experiencing a wide range of difficult emotions is a normal response to a potentially life-changing situation. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak, going crazy, or won’t be able to meet the health and emotional challenges that lie ahead.

EMDR, EMIT and Clinical Hypnotherapy are helpful therapies for PTS related to life threatening illnesses and cancer.

How to cope:

1: Reach out for support

2: Manage stress

3: Pursue activities that bring you meaning and joy

4: Deal with anxiety and depression

5: Find an appropriate therapist

And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, that the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

– Haruki Murakami